Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Since husband-and-wife team Tammy Hattem and Patrick Lepage started making uniforms 14 years ago for Saint-Stanislas secondary school in Saint-Jerome, Que., they have overcome many challenges.
Their company, RaphaëlU, is now adept at fulfilling orders for more than 50,000 students at nearly 50 schools throughout the province. Ms. Hattem and Mr. Lepage have learned to outsource production, mainly to Asia. The partners have carefully tended cash flow to expand without seeking outside financing. And they have managed a seasonal work force, which swells from 30 year-round employees to 175 as each new school year gears up.
But the Blainville, Que., company still faces one big challenge: How to design collections that conform to the basics of the school uniform while being as appealing as possible?
Students said of early designs, “‘It feels like we’re running around in our pajamas,’” Ms. Hattem says, laughing, because the designs were kept simple for ease of ordering and production.
The company now employs two people with design degrees, and also seeks advice from Eve Gravel, a Montreal-based fashion designer. This has resulted in improvements, such as more fitted clothing, especially for girls, as well as unique detailing. RaphaëlU’s proprietary plaid gives a colourful twist to the pockets and waistbands of boys’ pants. The company offers seven colours of polo shirts.
The changes have made students happy, Ms. Hattem says, but she knows designs must continue to evolve. The problem is how to make the clothes look good while using sturdy polyester fabrics that can be washed many times without fading.
While the students like to look and feel their best, cost-conscious parents want uniforms that will last as long as possible and retain their colour. The company must also weigh fashion trends against the schools’ desire for a unified look and clothes that reflect the appropriate amount of seriousness.
“We’re known for our nice stylish uniforms,” Ms. Hattem says. “But it takes a really long time to get out a good product because we have to work with these hard, durable materials. We have to make everybody happy.”
The Challenge: How can RaphaëlU make a line of clothing that is fashionable enough to please students, durable enough to please parents and conservative enough to please schools?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Students generally understand that uniforms can’t be following fashion trends per se, but the company should be listening to them about what they would like to see changed. Historically, complaints about uniforms are generally the same. No. 1 is usually the fit of the pant, with students complaining that they are too boxy or baggy. Sometimes they want more tapering for the tops.
Maybe the company needs to look beyond sizing and consider different body shapes, especially for girls. Some have more athletic bodies, some more curvy bodies. The girl who is a size 14 is going to have different requirements than the girl who is a size 4.
As for fabric, perhaps they could use a combination of polyester, rayon and spandex, which would be a bit softer. For polo shirts, they might want to look toward the athletic-wear industry, which uses things like mesh fabric under the arms. This is more breathable and would keep the kids comfortable, as well as giving a bit of an edge to the design. It would cost more, but sometimes you have to think outside the box and say this is going to benefit us by making us stand out from our competitors.
They could be doing more on social media. Have a competition in which students post photographs of themselves showing the alterations they would like and then have an online vote to pick the winner, who could be given a free uniform as a prize.
John Yan, senior co-ordinator for communications, Toronto Catholic District School Board
Since we implemented a wide-ranging uniform and dress code policy in 2011 for our 92,000 students it has been a daunting task finding suppliers who are not only reliable but meet the goals set out in our mission and vision.
Today’s emphasis on personalization and customization is relevant. Our students see themselves as a personal extension of their school brand or crest. So having a product ecosystem of clothing accessories such as athletic wear, hats, scarves and mitts would be the type of one-stop supplier we would want to access. New online clothing customization companies like CustomInk are cashing in on this trend.
Cost is always important, as well. It is our policy that no student will be denied access to school as a result of inability to afford the appropriate clothing. Solutions include seasonal discounts, swap-back programs and a collection system for donation of outgrown items.
Being socially responsible also matters. We have a sweatshop-free purchasing policy for all required items and provide all schools and parents with a list of retailers who have complied with fair labour practices and equitable sourcing requirements.
James Taylor, chief executive officer, B.C. Textile Innovations Inc., Port Coquitlam, B.C.
We do a lot of work uniforms, and a lot of our customers prefer to go with the polyester-cotton blends because they’re more comfortable. That can add 10 to 15 per cent to the cost of the fabric alone, but most of our customers want comfort, and cost isn’t as much of a concern.
But they also have all different kinds of synthetic fabrics now, such as microfibre and wicking polyester, the kind that is used for athletes. These fabrics would keep kids cool and looking good. They are also colour-fast.
RaphaëlU could move to a blend of 80 per cent polyester, 17 per cent cotton and 3 per cent lycra. That’s the route I would go to address concerns both of comfort and cost. They would have to have that blend specially made, but if they have a good fabric supplier, they could get them to do a test run and take it from there.
I would give sample styles and fabrics to the schools to try out. But I wouldn’t give them so many choices that it would be hard for them to decide or agree on one.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Look for stylish options that would make the company stand out from its competition.
Consider additional products
Students these days like accessories that have their school branding or crest on them.
Look for new fabric blends and give samples to the schools to try out – but not too many.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.